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“About 250 feet in advance of his line on the left the 13th Vermont had thrown up a breastwork on a low rocky knoll which was covered with bushes and trees. The 14th Vermont held a similar position to the left of the 13th, but on lower ground.” >More
The Gettysburg Bibliophile
In his introduction to Virtual Gettysburg, guide and collector Gary Kross states, "There are over 5,000 books, pamphlets and articles about the Battle of Gettysburg. Even if you could find it all, even if you could afford it all, you couldn't live long enough to read it all." That's the bad news. The good news is that the pace of Gettysburg scholarship and publication has never been faster.
In the years directly following the Battle of Gettysburg, the nation was too busy licking its wounds and grappling with reconstruction to think about writing or reading about the war. There were exceptions, but for the most part people wanted to think of other things. With the approach of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle, however, that all changed.
Interestingly, most of the first writings about the battle, specifically, and the war, generally, took place in the form of magazine articles. In the eighteen-eighties it became common place for surviving veterans to refight the Civil War with pen and paper. Century Magazine published an incredible run of fascinating articles between 1884 and 1887 which was later re-released as the multi-volume Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.
James Longstreet did a lot to hurt his reputation during this period, both in Century Magazine and in the Southern Historical Society Papers - fifty-two volumes of equally fascinating post-war literary battles. Robert E. Lee was dead and many Southern veterans seemed intent on blaming the loss at Gettysburg on Lee's 'Old Warhorse'. Longstreet, a better general than a writer, fumbled against his detractors and made the fatal error of pointing his finger at Lee.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the late eighteen-hundreds is the deluge of books published by the Northern states. These volumes contain monument photographs, dedication speeches, and regimental histories. The first-hand accounts of the veterans, speaking on the ground that they fought for, are both informative and heart rendering. One can only imagine the loss to history due to the fact that a similar record, filled with a greater sense of reconciliation than most other writings, doesn't exist by Southern veterans.
By the turn of the century, Gettysburg memoirs were becoming popular, perhaps nearly as popular as cheap wedding invitations are today. Lee never wrote about the battle, but the Southern perspective was well represented by John Bell Hood's Advance and Retreat, Longstreet's From Manassas to Appomattox, and John B. Gordon's Reminiscences of the Civil War. A Northern officer, Lt. Frank Haskell of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, wrote a 175-paragraph letter to his brother after the battle which has become one of the most popular and oft-quoted accounts from either side.
The fiftieth anniversary of the battle brought a huge increase in the published offerings for the general tourist. Tipton, Blocher, and Mumper released picture books with small monument photographs and simple narratives. There were also histories written by battlefield guides and veterans such as Long, Storrick, Minnigh, and Gilbert.
The next big push to publish came with the one-hundredth anniversary of the battle. Though hundreds of personal accounts were republished and many general interest picture books were repackaged, a new generation of writers were trying their hand at explaining this seminal monument in American history. Glenn Tucker's High Tide at Gettysburg and Bruce Catton's Glory Road were thrilling accounts of the campaign from a Northern perspective. Death of a Nation by Clifford Dowdey billed itself as "the story of the Confederate role in the battle" and a "searching examination of the reasons for the ultimate defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia".
In the years following, two of the most important books on the battle were released. Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is easily the widest read account of the battle. Fictional, but based on history, the novel tells the story of Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Joshua Chamberlain in a personal and accessable way that had never been accomplished before. The movie Gettysburg is based on this book.
What Killer Angels did for the general reader, Edwin Coddington's Gettysburg: A Study In Command did for the serious historian. Coddington's account of the battle is an incredible mix of readability and depth, and is considered by many serious students of Gettysburg to be their favorite book on the battle.
In 1982, Richard Sauers released his book, The Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 - August 1, 1863: A Comprehensive, Selectively Annotated Bibliography, a listing of almost three thousand titles. Until that time, a large portion of the most important Gettysburg books were about the entire battle, many including an overview of the month-long campaign leading up to the fight. But that would soon change.
The era of the micro-history was under way. Old ideas about the battle were being dissected and debunked, and new aspects of minutia were being being expanded into published works and research projects. Boutique publishers such as Morningside Bookshop and Thomas Publications began releasing works by a new generation of intelligent, curious authors.
This trend has continued and widened into the 21st Century. All these years after the battle one might think that there is little new to say. But with diaries coming to light almost daily and with emerging technologies such as the Internet easing access to existing data, there may yet be more to say about the three days in July, 1863, when hell rained down on a small Pennsylvania town.
Stephen Recker on:
The first book I ever read about the battle of Gettysburg was Coddington's "Gettysburg Campaign". To this day it remains my favorite book on the battle. That may be, in part, because it was my first. But the truth is that I really like how Coddington explains decisions that were made within the context of the limited options available to the commanders. I've never been in the military so all of this was new to me.
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